Diverse crops keeps pioneer busy
Heath relies on experience gained in Malaysia, Vanuatu
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Mike Heath farms a diversified, 500-acre operation, raising alfalfa, wheat, barley, corn, dry beans, garden bean seed, triticale, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, peppers, beef cattle, pigs and chickens.
His operation is organic. He also handles all of the marketing, with most of his products going to local markets and directly to consumers.
His interest in organic production began during his 10-year church service as an agricultural educator in Malaysia and the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.
"My job was to teach modern agriculture," he said. "I actually learned more than I taught."
That education came from Chinese farmers who farmed and raised livestock with an integrated approach. He also learned about integrated pest management.
He brought that learning with him when he returned to Idaho in 1979 and began farming. Three years later, he started growing organic alfalfa, turning ladybugs loose to control aphids.
"Being organic in those days was pretty crazy. A lot of people thought we were nuts," he said.
Slowly, he transformed all of his 500 acres, mostly leased, into an integrated, organic operation. He raises his own feed for the cattle, pigs and poultry and keeps a nearby organic dairy supplied with hay and corn.
He markets his products to a natural-foods distributor, local stores and restaurants and at farmers' markets. His wheat goes to millers in Eugene, Ore., his barley goes to Anheuser-Busch and he grows the bean seed under contract. He also markets through Idaho's Bounty, a cooperative of nearly 30 producers, which he helped form.
"We're pretty diversified on the local market," he said.
Fellow organic farmer Fred Brossy, of Shoshone, said the fact that Heath was one of the first organic farmers in Idaho is innovative in itself.
"The amount of diversity is innovative, and his efforts to market locally; he's certainly been persistent in that," he said.
With his diverse cropping system, Heath only has one pest problem -- the Colorado potato beetle.
"I try to rotate potatoes as far apart as possible," he said.
Organic certification does incur a fee and adds significant paperwork and at least an annual inspection, but organic prices are 30 percent to 100 percent higher than commercial prices, he said. Other than the nitrogen-using crops, his yields are as high as in conventional farming.
"Costs depend on the year, what the weather is like in June," he said.
If it's too wet, and he can't get in and cultivate, he's stuck with hand weeding. Except for labor costs in weeding, his other costs would be less than conventional farmers because he's not purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.
"Labor is by far our largest expense," he said.
But the hand weeding and hand harvesting also help feed a lot of families, he added.
Farming organically does have its own challenges, but it's more sustainable environmentally and economically he said.
"It's healthier as far as the environment is concerned, and it's healthier for myself and the workers," he said.
Home: Buhl, Idaho
Family: Wife, Marie, four children and six grandchildren
Livestock: 15 mother cows, over 1,000 broiler chickens, 70 layers, 15 pigs
Education: Bachelor of science degree in animal science, University of Idaho
Associations: Idaho's Bounty Co-op, former member of Idaho Organic Advisory Committee, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides